Sunday, January 24, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Born a Crime

Comedian Trevor Noah tells us about his childhood in South Africa. He begins by telling us that his birth was illegal, because his father was white and his mother black. He then tells us a story about his mother taking him to a church service during civil unrest and almost being killed by a taxi driver from a rival ethnic group. 

Why Noah might be hard to identify with: He portrays himself as slightly psychopathic. Remembering the time he burned down a house, he says, “I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade.”

  • We learn a lot quickly about the Zulu and the Xhosa. Struggles within groups that we would think would be allied are always fascinating to readers. The title promises an Apartheid memoir but Apartheid nominally ends when Noah is five, so he has to show us the conflicts that rose up in its place to keep things lively.
  • The details of his mother’s intense Christianity take obsessions we’re familiar with and project them onto a larger canvas.
  • Noah has a strongly defined argument tactic (that we know he still has if we’ve seen his show.)
    • “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
    • Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
    • “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
    • “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
    • “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
    • “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
    • “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
    • “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
    • “But, Mom!”
    • “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
    • Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.
  • He has child logic: But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.
  • He was raised under a brutally racist regime. He begins by quoting the law that made his birth illegal.
  • Then a group of his fellow black people wants to kill him for being of a different ethnic group.
  • He remembers getting beaten by his mother a lot, but he remembers it fairly fondly.
  • He lets us know that, later in the story, his mother will be shot in the head. He’s led a tough life, and she’s led one that even tougher.
  • He was in the shit. He’s been through a baptism of fire.
  • He, his mom, and his baby brother leap from a moving car to save themselves. The first numbered chapter begins: “Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.”
  • He has a keen sociological eye: “If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.”

Saturday, January 23, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Wendy and Lucy

Wendy is living out of her car in the Pacific Northwest along with her dog Lucy and gradually making her way to Alaska. She hangs out with some hoboes by a bonfire who give her tips. A security guard wakes her up in her car and tells her she has to move it, but it won’t start. 

Why Wendy might be hard to identify with: She’s a homeless drifter and we’re not used to identifying with those. It seems selfish for her to have a dog she can’t really take care of, as she’ll realize in the closing moments of the movie.

  • She fairly aimless but she does have a goal in mind: Alaska. One of her fellow hoboes knows all about Alaska and shares some fun stories about working on docks there.
  • She carefully traces her route so far on a map. She keeps careful track of all her expenses, showing us the details of her life. We always like physicalization.
  • Her sweatshirt and shorts and sneakers feel very normal. She doesn’t look like Michele Williams.
  • She’s living in her car, hanging out with scary tattooed hoboes in railyards at night.
  • She gets hassled by cops who wake her up in her car. “You can’t sleep here, ma’am.” Then her car won’t start.
  • Not much reason. She’s not very resourceful. When her car won’t start, she tries looking under the hood, but clearly has no idea what she’s looking at.
  • She’s certainly loving to her dog, which makes us root for her somewhat. (Though on one level, we’re just rooting for her to find a better home for that dog. But when she does so at the end, it’s devastating.)

Friday, January 22, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Harriet the Spy

On the upper east side, 11 year old Harriet Welsh is playing “Town” with her friend Sport, imagining a crime-filled town in the roots of a tree, when she and Sport are invited by her nanny Ole Golly to go out to Far Rockaway visit to Golly’s mother, who isn’t all there. 

Why Harriet might be hard to identify with: She’s a mean little rich girl with a live-in nanny and chef on the upper east side. We simultaneously identify with her mean side and feel repulsed by it. (Kids in 2020 tend not to like the book, because they’ve been raised to be nicer than us Gen X kids)

  • Her notebook is the physicalization of her mind, and her constant talisman.
  • She has secrets. Fitzhugh lets us know she has a secret life, and then only gradually reveals it to us.  
  • By the end of this first chapter, we have a sense of it, but we see that it’s a secret from everyone else in Harriet’s life.
  • She traverses worlds from a very rich home a very poor home in this first chapter, and we always like heroes who can visit both.
  • We all remember those little moments, around this age, when we realized that authority figures were human beings with their own things going on.
  • Objects are anthropomorphized in a way that makes this world come alive. “And her shoes were a wonder. Long, long, black, bumpy things with high, laced sides up to the middle of the shin, bulging with the effort of holding in those ankles, their laces splitting them into grins against the white of the socks below.”
  • The portrayal of Ole Golly’s mom is like nothing we’ve ever seen in a kid’s book before. We’re used to dead moms, but not negelcted ones that are tragically mentally disabled.
  • She’s not as good of a writer as she wishes she was, and Sport’s dubious toward her narrative shortcuts wounds her a bit.
  • She feels embarrassed to see the scene between Golly and her poor mother.
  • Crucially, she’s starting to very vaguely realize she might be a bad person, “Harriet felt very ugly all of a sudden.” We like self-awareness, as long as it dawns very slowly.
  • Like all writers, she has the superpower of making something out of nothing.
  • And she has incisive powers of observation about her fellow New Yorkers, though her observations lean towards the vicious.
  • We like her snarkiness. We like kids who talk like they’re adults, such as when she introduces Sport as her husband.
Strength / Flaw: Incisive / Cruel

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: It's a Wonderful Life

Celestial beings fret about George Bailey in 1946 and review his life: We meet George at 12 in 1919, with a group sledding onto a frozen pond on snow shovels. George has to dive in to save his brother’s life. He loses hearing in one ear, but soon returns to works at old man Gower’s drug store, but Gower’s son has just died in the pandemic, so he gets drunk and accidentally sends George out with the wrong pills. George goes to ask his father for advice, but his father, working at a Savings and Loan, is being chewed out by the town banker, Mr. Potter. George decides not to deliver the pills and gets beaten by Mr. Gower until he convinces him of the mistake he made. Jumping ten years later, Mr. Gower buys George a large suitcase as George prepares to travel the world. 

Why George might be hard to identify with: We always groan a bit when we’re told that we’re going to have to learn a hero’s story from their childhood, starting off the story with a younger actor. We say, “Ugh, this had better be worth it.”

  • He has lots of odd rituals, like using some sort of bizarre cigarette lighter contraption in the store, which presumably fails a lot, so he says “I wish I had a million dollars”, and tries to light it. When it lights, he says: “Hot dog!”
  • He’s not an adorable little kid. He’s got personality. Violent says “Help me down?”, and he just replies “Help you down??” and walks away.
  • He has an obsession: Traveling the world. “You don’t like cocoanuts? Say, Brainless, don’t you know where cocoanuts come from? [takes out National Geographic] Lookit here, from Tahiti, Fiji Islands, Coral sea!”
  • He’s got a false goal: “I’m going out exploring some day. You watch. And I’m going to have a harem, and maybe a couple of wives! Wait and see!”
  • He loses hearing in one ear saving his brother.
  • When he’s whistling his drunk boss says, “George, you’re not paid to be a canary!”, embarrassing him.
  • He sees his beloved father humiliated. “You can’t begin to spend all the money you’ve got--” “--Oh, I suppose I should give it to miserable failures like you and that idiot brother of yours to spend for me?” He tries to stand up for his father but his father whisks him out of the room, not stopping to give him the advice he needs.
  • Mr. Gower hits him until blood comes out of his ears when he finds out he hasn’t sent the pills.
  • He will soon lose his chance to to travel the world.
  • A classic “save the cat”: He first meet him jumping in a frozen pond to save his brother’s life.
  • Then another: He saves the life of the person who would have taken the wrong pills.
Strength / Flaw (Not really flip sides): Bravery, good sense and moral courage / overly sarcastic and prone to depression

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Snowpiercer

In 2031, a train rattles through a frozen Earth with the rich people in the front and the poor people in the back. A young man named Curtis leads the poor people in a revolt.

Why Curtis might be hard to identify with: Well, he seems a little too healthy to be totally believable as a desperately poor person. (Evans had just bulked up to play Captain America)

  • All the details are bizarre. All humanity lives on a moving train. They’re given gelatinous black cubes to eat.
  • The guards are glumly brutal but not sadists, so the movie doesn’t feel manipulative. They’re just doing their jobs.
  • Their life is a living hell. Their children are being taken from them for some nefarious purpose. One of them is tortured by having his arm put outside the train, then smashed with a hammer when it’s frozen.
  • We can guess that Curtis despises himself for some reason. “I’m not who you think I am.”
  • He talks to a kid like an adult, doing an elaborate high five with a young black kid.
  • He’s strategizing. He figures out there are four seconds when all three gates are open at once.
  • He’s worshipped for his leadership. “Edgar just wants to help, you know. Thinks the world of you.” “He shouldn’t worship me the way he does.”
  • He notices things. “They don’t have bullets. Remember what Mason said? She said ‘put down that useless gun.’”

Monday, January 18, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Americanah

Nigerian American academic Ifemelu journeys from Princeton, New Jersey, to nearby Trenton to find an African salon to get her hair braided, thinking about the fact that she’s recently shuttered her popular blog about race in America and left her boyfriend Blaine in preparation for a move back to Nigeria, where she’s still in love with her old boyfriend Obinze, who is now married. 

Why Ifemelu might be hard to identify with: I think we’re hardwired to dislike bloggers, spewing digital noise instead of producing a physical product. Betsy and I both felt a sea change of respect when we turned out blogs into physical books.

  • You would think that another reason she might be hard to identify with is that she’s fairly hypocritical. Her blog consisted of calling out white people for saying insensitive things about black people, but at the salon she’s fairly disgusted by things she should probably not be. One can only imagine how much she would have nailed a white woman who said “Mariama pointed at the smallest of the braiders, who had a skin condition, pinkish-cream whorls of discoloration on her arms and neck that looked worryingly infectious.” But we actually identify with hypocrisy. It’s a pretty universal emotion.
  • The wonderful sensory details begin with the first sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing.” She then gives us a tour of other places she’s lived in America according to their smells: “Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage.”
  • Everybody has their totem objects: She sees a white man eating ice cream during the day and that seems so oddly American to her. (“She had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public) She worries if she goes to Nigeria, she’ll be one of those returnees always carrying a water bottle. (“Ranyinudo, had made her return seem normal. ‘Lagos is now full of American returnees, so you better come back and join them. Every day you see them carrying a bottle of water as if they will die of heat if they are not drinking water every minute’”)
  • Collapsing confidence is always easy to identify with: “She began, over time, to feel like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of people’s stories for something she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.”
  • The love of her life has married another woman.
  • The braiders treat her as alien, both for wanting her hair to be natural and other reasons, making her worried that she’ll no longer be at home in either world.
  • She feels unsure about walking away from her blog, her boyfriend, her apartment, and everything she’s known in recent years. She’s alienated even from her own emotions. (“Imagining him at his wedding left her with a feeling like sorrow, a faded sorrow.”)
  • She has unique problems, because she is uncomfortably stuck between worlds, not entirely welcome in either. She’s afraid that her taxi driver will be Nigerian because of the questions and/or resentments they often have for her.
  • She has a sharp eye. She diagnoses the ills and oddnesses of both America and Nigeria well. (“Before, she would have said, ‘I know,’ that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge.”)
  • We love heroes that bestride two worlds, and she does so right away, going from Ivy-covered Princeton to working class Trenton, prefiguring a much bigger journey.
  • We aren’t very inclined to like bloggers, but she’s at least talented at her quest to get people to say racist things she could skewer on her blog: “People were flattered to be asked about themselves and if she said nothing after they spoke, it made them say more. They were conditioned to fill silences.”

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Saturday, January 16, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: The Wizard of Oz

Young Dorothy comes home to her farm in Kansas to report that Miss Gulch wants to order her dog destroyed. Her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em won’t listen to her. Miss Gulch shows up with an order from the sheriff and takes Toto, but Toto runs away from her back to Dorothy, who decides to run away from home. On her journey, she meets a phony psychic named Professor Marvel who pretends to see that Auntie Em misses her. Dorothy heads home, but a tornado hits and she finds the house empty. The house flies up in the air and lands in the (color) land of Oz on top of an evil witch. The locals celebrate her and a good witch rewards her with magic slippers. 

Why Dorothy might be hard to identify with: When she falls in the pigsty, her dress doesn’t get dirty, which makes her hard to believe in.

  • We love heroes that ride bicycles. They are exercising and interacting with their world.
  • She has the ultimate “I want” song, giving us a glimpse into her heart.
  • She actually has a really strong motivation to run away from home: to save her dog’s life. We agree with her.
  • We see her strong, unique reasons for running away, but her general desires are universal enough that Professor Marvel can guess them: They don’t understand you at home, they don’t appreciate you.”
  • Miss Gulch wants to kill her dog!
  • Nobody will listen to her.
  • We care for naïve heroes and she’s naïve in her dealing with Professor Marvel.
  • She straight up gets caught in a tornado. Her family closes themselves in the cellar without her.
  • We see that she’s brave and gung-ho when she refuses to avoid Miss Gulch and walks along the fence between the pig sties.
  • She runs away to save her dog.
  • She accidentally kills a witch and gets celebrated and rewarded with magic slippers
Strength/flaw: Defiant / inconsiderate of the feelings of others